Minority report

Thousands of Yazidi people fled Isis terror in northern Iraq to become refugees in Kurdistan. In the Kurdish capital Erbil, an artist from Bolton is leading attempts to help them

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Dancing in a thunderstorm as lightning flashes across a dark sky, Yazidi children hold their hands upwards to catch raindrops. As we enter their camp, they splash in puddles and yell with excitement and some shout out the odd word of English.

“Hello! Hello!” hollers a young boy wearing a Barcelona football shirt, as we run for cover to the home of one of the 13 families in this makeshift camp. There are 100 people living in basic huts, in the shadow of the plush seven-star Divan Hotel that towers above this tiny encampment.

One young girl draws her hand across her throat when she utters the word ‘Daesh’

We are in Erbil, the capital of Kurdish-controlled land in northern Iraq (aka southern Kurdistan to the Kurds) and these are Yazidi refugees who’ve been living in the city as internally displaced persons (IDPs) since escaping Isis in 2014. These families are from Shingal, aka Sinjar, a town that came to the world’s attention nearly three years ago when Isis invaded suddenly and committed mass murder.

During wanton medieval violence, the Islamists massacred at least 5,000 people. They also abducted hundreds of young Yazidi women who were forced into sexual slavery. Fifty thousand fled up a mountain, where they were forced to stay without food or shelter until they were rescued by Kurdish forces.

With an uncertain future, Yazidi refugees who made it to Erbil live in a part of the Kurdish capital called Dream World, although conditions in this camp are in stark contrast to the surrounding wealth.

We are welcomed from the downpour into a family’s home. We leave our shoes at the entrance and sit on rugs on the floor. “This is beautiful – what a privilege this is,” says Tracy Fenton, a 49-year-old artist from Bolton. She is hosting our visit to the Yazidi camp with her colleague Deborah Morgan-Jones. The English women work at the University of Kurdistan, which has been supporting these Yazidi families since last autumn.

We are offered tea and biscuits and a young Yazidi girl called Samira, aged 12, does her best to translate my questions. I ask what her grandmother likes about living in Erbil.

“In Sinjar, everything is broken after Daesh [Arab name for Isis] came. It is not good, it is very bad,” is the reply. “Kurdistan, Hewler [Erbil] and the Peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] have been very good to us.”

Fenton, who studies creative education at Salford University, came to Iraqi Kurdistan in January. She says that while the Yazidis are content living in Erbil, they all wish to return to Sinjar, although political instability means this is currently not possible.

“A few weeks ago I was doing a project with them and said ‘Draw something that makes you happy’ and every single one of them drew the houses they left behind,” she says.

The majority of Yazidis consider themselves ethnically Kurdish but are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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Estimates put the global number of Yazidis at about 700,000, with the vast majority concentrated in northern Iraq, in and around Sinjar. For their beliefs, the Yazidis have been persecuted for centuries and are considered heretical devil worshippers by Isis, which wanted to wipe them out in 2014.

It is difficult to imagine what these Yazidi families have suffered. As we speak, one young girl draws her hand across her throat when she utters the word “Daesh”.

Fenton says that to be invited into a Yazidi home is extraordinary because they can be extremely insular – particularly these families that choose to be separate from other Yazidi IDPs who are housed in larger, official camps elsewhere in Kurdish territory.

“These are very interconnected families and they are Sinjar Yazidis, who are very fundamental. If we were to try and make a parallel with UK society then these would be Travellers, perhaps Romany Gypsies. They want to be together – but on their own and away from other IDPs,” Fenton explains.

We’d met her earlier at the University of Kurdistan in Erbil, along with Professor Jamal Rasul, a former refugee and minister of planning with the Kurdistan regional government. He is now principal at the educational institution.

Rasul says there are currently more than two million refugees and IDPs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They include hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and also Iraqis who’ve recently fled the battle for Mosul.

A refugee himself once in Iran, Rasul says: “Today Kurdistan is a safe area. People from all over Iraq have come here. I know how hard it is to be a refugee. The rest of the world has a moral responsibility to keep Kurdistan on its feet. We are looking after more than two million people.”

Due to the recent mass influx of people into the region, the University of Kurdistan now has lecturers and students who are IDPs and refugees. For the Kurds, it means that the demography of their territory is changing rapidly, with 30 per cent of populations now Arab in major Kurdish cities such as Erbil, Duhok
and Sulaymaniyah. “Acceptance is now having to be practised by Kurds,” Rasul says.

Last September the university was asked to help the small Yazidi community. Morgan-Jones, who has researched post-traumatic stress disorder among refugee communities, was approached by the thinktank Middle Eastern Research Forum.

“No was not an option so I took it to the vice-chancellor and he thought it was fantastic – so we set up a recruitment programme for students,” she says. The university’s call for help led to 47 students volunteering and they now visit the camp, in groups, three times a week to assist with teaching.

Fenton came on board in January this year after writing to the university. She’s a therapeutic artist who worked with refugees in Bolton and her work with the Yazidis is part of her research for a masters degree.

She says: “In December, I just had a real pull on my heart that I need to come here, so I emailed the vice-chancellor and told him who I was and what I wanted to do. I asked if he could find a place for me to work with his students, and within three days I literally had a job. So I flew over just after Christmas.”

Artist in residence at the university, Fenton works with staff and students, helping people to deal with any trauma they’re suffering. Many students impacted by war are extremely fragile.

She’s also working therapeutically with the Yazidis, some of whom witnessed carnage in Shinjar. At Salford University, she examined the loss of occupational identity faced by refugees and a main focus of her work in Erbil is helping Yazidi women who have lost everything.

“Becoming an IDP isn’t just about losing your home. It’s about losing your actual identity. You lose your role as a mum, as counsellor, as a taxi driver. You lose everything that you maintained and created in your community,” Fenton says.

She adopts a therapeutic approach as opposed to therapy. “It’s a softer approach, it’s hands on, loving people back to life. These people are flatlining. I call it loving people back to life through creativity.”

As part of the project, she’s been helping the women to make clothes to sell – a livelihood project to help them become social entrepreneurs and get an income. It’s about tapping into their skills and giving them confidence. The men can pick up casual work.

“It’s not like back in England when they can stay home and live off benefits. Here, if they don’t work they don’t get anything,” Fenton says.

Another aim at the outset was to get young children into primary school and the university has been helped by a local school called Sabat, which offered to take 40 of them.

For now, these people have some stability but the future of this community – and tens of thousands more Yazidi IDPs – remains unclear. Sinjar, largely destroyed by Isis, remains politically unstable as various factions vie for control and it is unknown what might happen when Isis is eventually cleared from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where the terror group is battling Iraqi forces. But the University of Kurdistan is determined to continue to help the Yazidis for as long as they stay in

“This is a vocation, not a profession. It’s got to come from the heart,” Fenton says. “You get a lot of people who want to do this, with the right intentions, but they often fall away. The kids, you just love them. You cannot not love them. The way that everyone’s come together has been amazing. It’s just wonderful to see it growing so beautifully.”

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